Nuclear teams could start Libya inspections next week

Inspections of Libyan nuclear sites could start as early as next week, as moves intensified yesterday to bring the north African state back into the international fold.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said he would visit Tripoli next week for initial talks on the state of the Libyan nuclear programme. He said the meeting would "kickstart a process of verification" of Libya's arms, adding: "Inspections will follow, as early as next week."

He said the visit was a positive step by Libya to "rid itself of all programmes or activities that are relevant or could lead to the production of weapons of mass destruction". Mr ElBaradei said he would brief the IAEA's governing board about Libya's illicit nuclear activities, including a uranium enrichment programme to produce bomb-grade material.

Downing Street has said that the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, had not "acquired a nuclear weapons capability, though it was close to developing one".

Talks with the IAEA were hastily organised in Vienna on Saturday, after Libya announced it was abandoning its weapons of mass destruction programme. Libya was already a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but a new protocol allows for tougher, "snap" visits to nuclear sites by IAEA inspectors.

Mr ElBaradei's arrival will trigger a protracted process, starting with Libya accounting for its nuclear programme. The IAEA will then carry out inspections to verify the accuracy of the information, followed by the dismantling process, probably by Libyans. The IAEA will carry out continuous monitoring to ensure no new nuclear programmes are set up.

Welcoming the move, Mike O'Brien, a Foreign Office minister, paid tribute to Col Gaddafi for his "statesmanlike and courageous" conduct in recent weeks.

Britain expected Tripoli to "co-operate fully" with the UN nuclear watchdog and with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Mr O'Brien told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "In the case of biological weapons ... Libya has indicated it is prepared to accept, following some negotiations and discussions, ways of verifying, monitoring and inspecting them. We are happy that process is one we think could ensure Libya is fully compliant."

The Libyan Prime Minister, Shokri Ghanem, yesterday underlined his country's willingness to co-operate with the UN weapons inspections team.

"We are pleased with the commitment we are making to the IAEA and we are willing to abide by its rules and honour our commitments," he told the BBC. "It is the IAEA rules and procedures that will decide how much we are applying what we said and that we mean what we say and honour our commitments." But he called on Israel to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. He said: "The Middle East ... should be free from weapons of mass destruction and that is what Israel should be."

Mr Ghanem denied Libya had supported terrorists, maintaining it was "participating in the fight against terrorism".

His government's priority was to improve the country's economy and the living standards of Libyans," he said.

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